April 20, 1906
Angels. They had to be angels, those luminous beings
dressed in shim-
mering white robes. God’s own angels. They floated by him
on gossamer wings, just as the nuns had described so long
ago. I must be in Heaven, Patrick Reilly decided. A wave of
tranquillity washed over him. I died and went to Heaven.
It made sense. He remembered Stevenson Alley, deserted,
except for the wagon detail. He remembered trying to
balance on his good leg while grasping one of the canvas
bags so he could set himself to aim his pistol at that
teamster son of a bitch. Funny, he mused, you could swear
in Heaven. And he remembered looking down the wrong end of
Bohman’s rifle, then seeing it flash. Now he was in Heaven.
Another angel floated by. Reilly felt pleased. He hadn’t
been detained in Purgatory. He’d gone straight to the Lord.
He didn’t deserve such grace.
Slowly, Reilly became aware of his head. It felt
uncomfortably warm, as though he were wearing a wool cap in
the sun. He reached up to touch his hair. His hand took
forever to make the journey. No hair. Instead, his head was
bound in cloth of some kind. They wear turbans in Heaven.
Another silvery angel floated by, and in its wake, he
caught a whiff of something vaguely familiar … rubbing
alcohol. Why would there be disinfectant in Heaven? He
inhaled deeply and smelled something else … smoke. But not
the homey fragrance of a hearth. It was the acrid stench of
the fire he’d died fleeing. This was not the Heaven the
nuns had described. The fabric of his serenity began to
fray. If he were truly in Heaven, where were his parents?
His wife? The Apostles? Christ?
He tried to call to one of the angels, but his tongue was
petrified. His lips wouldn’t move. His head ached. His
whole body felt leaden. He became aware that he was lying
on his back gazing up at what appeared to be clouds, except
that they were black. Smoke?
He tried to roll onto his side, but something stopped him,
a weight attached to his leg. His breathing was labored. He
tried to lick his lips. Sandpaper on rough wood. With an
effort, he rolled partway over. Something hard and white
entered his field of vision. It had the texture of stone …
marble … and it looked like some sort of monument … a
tombstone? In Heaven? This made no sense at all. Slowly,
carvings in the rock came into focus: “Jose Jesus Bernal”
followed by Spanish gibberish. Then “1870. … 39 años.”
Definitely a tombstone. Reilly’s head hurt more now. Bernal
… Bernal. … He knew the name. Wasn’t he the rancher who
first settled Bernal Hill, the grassy rise at the end of
Folsom Street where he took his girls for picnics? This was
not Heaven. Reilly groaned.
“Ah, so you’re awake, lad. Welcome back to the land of the
Reilly looked up at an angel in white. Only it wasn’t an
angel. It was a nurse, a nun in a white habit with a winged
“You were in bad shape when the soldiers brought you in
yesterday,” the nun explained cheerfully. “Head covered
with blood. But when we cleaned you up, it was just a scalp
wound. Nothing serious. You’re one lucky fellow. A scalp
wound and a sprained ankle.”
Reilly tried to speak, but all that emerged was a croaking
“I bet you’re thirsty,” the nun said. “Sister Mary Agnes!”
she called to another nun. “Give us a hand?”
The two nurses pulled Reilly up to sitting and held a large
ladle to his cracked lips. He sipped some cool water,
gagged on it, spat it out, then tried again, and was able
to suck some down.
Reilly was sitting on a cot … in a jumble of cots … in a
graveyard. His head hurt and so did his ankle, which was
also tightly bandaged. With a huge effort, he managed to
whisper, “Where am I?”
“Mission Dolores,” the nun, Sister Mary Louise, replied,
“in the cemetery. The new church collapsed. The Mission is
full of injured. We had to move the overflow out here, in
spite of the smoke.”
So it was smoke. Reilly coughed.
“For a while this morning, it looked like we might have to
evacuate—us and everyone camped in Dolores Park. The fire
was charging up from Happy Valley. But then, praise God, a
miracle: A hydrant on Twentieth Street held water and the
firemen stopped the blaze at Dolores. But the air’s still
thick as a smokehouse.”
Reilly had to strain to understand the nun’s words.
Everything east of Dolores burned? His face contorted. “My
girls!” He tried to stand up, but didn’t get far, and fell
back in a heap. Tears welled up in his eyes.
“Where do you live?” Sister Mary Louise inquired
“Shotwell near Fourteenth.” Reilly sputtered. “My girls!
“I’m sure they made it out all right,” the nun comforted
him. “People been streaming out of that neighborhood since
yesterday morning. They’re probably camped in Dolores
Reilly tried to stand again, grabbing at the nun’s habit.
“Got to find them. …” He almost made it up this time, but
lost his balance and plopped heavily back down on the cot.
“Sure, go look for them,” Sister Mary Louise explained,
“but don’t expect to be nimble. You lost a fair amount of
blood. You have a sprained ankle. You haven’t eaten. And we
dosed you good with morphine.”
At the mention of food, Reilly felt ravenous. A billow of
black smoke blew overhead. Papery ash drifted down on them,
big black snowflakes. Nearby, on other cots, the injured
were sleeping, dazed, moaning. Nuns moved among them
offering water and comfort. Here and there, they pulled a
blanket over a head and crossed themselves.
Reilly had to get to Dolores Park, find his daughters, then
get to the Mint. He clutched Sister Mary Louise’s arm and
hoisted himself to his feet. His head felt light, his legs
shaky. For a moment, the cemetery whirled around him. He
teetered, but with the nun’s help, remained standing.
Sister Mary Louise reached into the folds of her habit and
produced a small apothecary bottle, Dr. Wylie’s Excellent
Morphine Elixir. “You’ve had a fair amount of this already,
but you’ll need more.” She slipped the vial into his
pocket. “Make it last. It’s all I can give you.”
Reilly mumbled his thanks, then pushed away from the
Sister, intent on getting to the Park. But he forgot about
his sprained ankle. He took a step, stumbled, and almost
crashed down on a cot occupied by a doe-eyed young woman
with a heavily bandaged arm. She was pregnant and looked
about ready to pop.
“Whoa now,” the nun clucked, grabbing his arm to steady
him. “Hold your horses.” She turned and called, “Father
A short rotund priest appeared, and grabbed Reilly under
his other arm. Reilly recognized him as the kind but
slovenly priest at St. Joseph on Tenth Street. “Patrick, me
boy! You’re up and around. How do you feel, lad? The doctor
said you were shot!” The priest’s breath smelled of
“Father, my girls—”
“All safe, praise God. I saw Mary Elizabeth … oh, must have
been around sun-up, though you can’t hardly tell with the
damn smoke.” The priest coughed. “She and her sisters are
in Dolores Park.”
Reilly tried to take another step, and crumpled into the
priest’s arms. Then Sister Mary Louise shoved a makeshift
crutch under his arm. Reilly leaned on it heavily. The
priest took a step back. Reilly swayed a bit, but didn’t
With an immense effort, Reilly took a tiny step. He wobbled
and almost went down, but recovered in time. His head
pounded. His ankle throbbed fiercely in its tight
swaddling. He felt famished. He staggered another tiny
step, still shaky, but better this time. “Got to find my
girls, then get to the Mint.”
“The Mint?” Father Kennedy exclaimed. “You’ll not be
getting anywhere near there. Soldiers have everything
cordoned off. You can’t cross Dolores.”
With that, the priest and nun turned and padded off to
attend to an elderly woman groaning like a rusty hinge on a
Reilly hobbled toward the cemetery gate. Seagulls soared
among the smoky clouds overhead. Everywhere he looked, the
injured stared vacantly into the gray haze as hot ash
rained down on them: a man with both legs bound to splints;
a woman in a ripped dress that bared a shoulder covered by
a reddened bandage; a mother hovering over a child whose
arm was in a sling.
Someone touched his shoulder. Sister Mary Louise. “I almost
forgot. When they brought you in, you were clutching these.
Here. Your lucky charms.” She handed him two shiny, oily,
golden disks. Double Eagles. For a moment, Reilly had no
idea why he would have been holding them. Then, overcoming
a wave of dizziness, he remembered the wagon, the shootout.
To steady himself, he’d grabbed a coin bag that had been
ripped open by gunfire. He recalled touching the cool
greasy misstrikes, but not grabbing any. He gazed down at
the coins. The obverses were perfect, the starred border
framing Lady Liberty’s head, her golden curls held in place
by a magnificent tiara that proclaimed “Liberty.” But the
reverses were an embarrassment. The lettering “United
States of America” and “Twenty D.” looked fine, but the
eagle and shield were hopelessly blurred, and under them,
the “S” mint mark was double-die, “SS.”
Reilly thrust the coins into his pocket. He prayed that
someone—anyone—had caught that double-crossing whore’s son
of a teamster. Otherwise, what could he possibly tell
Reilly tottered gingerly out of the cemetery to Dolores
Street. Father Kennedy was right. Across the palm-studded
boulevard stood a line of soldiers brandishing rifles with
bayonets, and behind them, nothing but charred smoking
wreckage, and a few rats and dogs scurrying about.
• • •
Dolores Park was a natural bowl scooped out of a steep
hillside just south of the new Mission High School. It was
a sea of refugees turned sooty from fallen ash. Everywhere
Reilly looked he saw dazed faces, babies crying, families
squatting around pathetic piles of salvaged belongings, and
here and there, relief workers offering ladles of water,
hard rolls, and soup. He hobbled up to a Salvation Army
wagon for a drink and a roll dipped in a mysterious stew.
He wolfed the meal like an animal. It only made him
hungrier, but the lady said, “One to a customer. Come back
later.” He hobbled away.
His head and ankle hurt more now. The morphine was wearing
off. He considered taking a pull from the vial he carried,
but decided to wait.
“Patrick! Patrick Reilly!” It was his Irishtown neighbor,
Mavis O’Leary, a big milk-skinned strawberry blond whose
broad hips had birthed seven children. “Thank God you’re
safe. The girls have been sick with worry.”
“My girls!” Reilly wobbled over to O’Leary and embraced
“Fine. Everybody come through fine, thanks be to God.
They’re all a wee bit up the hill with Brendan. Megan saved
your family Bible and photo album—oh, and your baseball
mitt.” O’Leary smiled, and for the first time in what felt
like years, Reilly smiled as well.
Then O’Leary noticed his bandages. “Good Christ, Patrick,
what happened to you?”
Reilly sighed. “Fell off a horse and got shot.” He suddenly
felt exhausted. He had an overwhelming urge to lie down and
“For the love of God, man, how?”
“Long story,” he murmured. “Take me to the girls, Mavis.
Then I’ve got to get to the Mint.”
They picked their way around knots of refugees clinging to
salvaged belongings. It was slow going. The hillside was
steep and crowded. Here, a family huddled in fur coats.
There, another shivered in bedclothes and tattered
blankets. West of the Park, on the hill above them, the old
farm houses and new Victorians looked reasonably intact.
But to the east, the teeming tenements of the Inner Mission
were all gone, reduced to smoking charcoal.
Then, a man caught Reilly’s eye. Something about him
reminded the Irishman of the teamster. Reilly stepped over
a Chinese family cooking rice over an open fire to get a
closer look. The man was crouched in the grass by a table
improvised from an overturned half-barrel, playing poker.
“See your dime and raise another nickel.” Coins were tossed
on the barrelhead. The man was not wearing an Army uniform
and his side was bandaged. Perhaps he’d been mistaken. Then
Reilly spied the crescent-shaped birthmark by his eye, the
same one he’d seen when Bohman sighted down on him.
“Patrick!” O’Leary called, “Where are you off to? This
Reilly ignored her. There was no doubt in his mind. The
gambler was the teamster. He plunged toward the card game
as fast as he could work his crutch, and hurled himself at
the treacherous bastard. Cards went flying as Bohman went
down under him.
“Murderer!” Reilly cried, pummeling Bohman. “This man’s a
murderer and a thief! Someone get the police!”
Reilly and Bohman rolled in the dirt as those in the
immediate vicinity scrambled to get out of harm’s way.
Reilly landed a solid punch on Bohman’s ear, then grabbed
him by the throat. Bohman flailed, alternately pushing his
crazed assailant away and pounding him with balled fists.
Both men were injured, and neither was at full strength,
but Bohman was tougher, more of a fighter. He gouged at
Reilly’s eyes until the Irishman let go of his throat, then
punched him square in the nose. Reilly fell backward, a
bright red stream gushing from his nostrils. Bohman pounced
and the two men grappled, hitting and kicking each other in
the dirt. Reilly was soon exhausted. Where were the damn
police? Then Bohman kneed him sharply in the groin. For a
moment, Reilly froze in breathless agony. That moment was
all Bohman needed. He reached into his coat, pulled out a
knife, and plunged it to the hilt into Reilly’s side.
Bohman staggered to his feet. “Bastard attacked me for no
reason!” No one in the vicinity moved. They just stared.
“Never saw him before in my life.” Then brandishing his
bloody knife lest anyone attempt to detain him, Bohman
stumbled away, and in an instant was swallowed by the mob
• • •
Patrick Reilly languished mostly delirious for three days,
then succumbed to the knife wound. During lucid periods
before he died, he told his daughters and the O’Learys
about the 17 bags of misstrikes, the wagon party’s flight,
and the teamster’s treachery. Word spread, and it didn’t
take long for reporters to find their way to Reilly’s
deathbed, a musty pallet in a canvas Army tent in the
Mission High schoolyard. When Walther confirmed the tale,
all four papers—the Examiner, Chronicle, Call, and
Bulletin—ran front-page stories: FORTUNE IN MINT GOLD LOST
NEAR CITY HALL.
The Mint and the Main Post Office were the only two
buildings South of Market to survive the fire intact. The
glass in some of the Mint’s windows melted from the heat,
and a few iron shutters buckled, but the building’s granite
walls held, and the hosing and bucket brigade kept the roof
and windowsills from igniting. In the weeks after the
earthquake, the Mint had the only potable water South of
the Slot, and lines of returning refugees queued up with
buckets and bottles.
The mob Walther feared never formed. The smoke, flames, and
heat drove the miscreants off. No one attacked. The $200
million in the vault was saved. But all anyone cared about
was the 6,491 Double Eagles that had disappeared. Of all
the stories to emerge from the Great San Francisco
Earthquake and Fire, the tale of the Lost Gold became the
For a city born in a mad rush for the yellow metal, the
Lost Gold struck a nerve. The moment martial law was
lifted, thousands of San Franciscans flocked to Stevenson
Alley near Eighth to sift the wreckage. Fights broke out.
The police moved in and cordoned off the area. Walther, his
men, and a detachment of troops searched it systematically,
using horse teams to haul away wreckage. They found
A police artist spoke with soldiers who knew Private Ellis
Bohman and came up with a sketch that was circulated far
and wide. The Army scoured the West for him and alerted
police departments from Seattle to San Diego and east to
St. Louis. Several men were arrested, but none turned out
to be the teamster.
On the chance that Bohman might be apprehended while
attempting to dispose of the gold, the Treasury Department
alerted banks throughout the country to be on the lookout
for anyone presenting 1906-S twenty-dollar gold pieces with
an SS mint mark. But except for the two coins Reilly
accidentally grabbed, none ever turned up. Years later, one
of his daughters, hard up for cash, sold the two Double
Eagles to a collector.
Ten years after the earthquake, in 1916, with the country
preparing to enter World War I, the Treasury Department
closed the books on the Lost Gold. In his final report,
Chief Investigator Thomas Conrad noted bitterly that the
weight of the evidence pointed to Bohman’s escape with the
gold, which he must have melted down and quietly sold off
The earthquake and fire were disasters to be sure, but as
far as San Francisco’s civic fathers were concerned, they
also represented a unique opportunity to eliminate its dens
of depravity. The whoremasters, saloon keepers, and opium
merchants were forbidden to return to Morton Street and the
Barbary Coast. Street names were changed. Chinatown was
rebuilt with pagodas. And crews of laborers pushed debris
from the fire into the pits where the brothels, gambling
halls, and opium dens once stood. With great fanfare, Mayor
Schmitz announced that like a phoenix, a magnificent new
San Francisco would rise from the ashes and rubble of the
Shortly after the fire, the Secretary of the Treasury
awarded Herbert Walther and his men commendations for
risking their lives to save the $200 million in the Mint
vault. Then a year later, he quietly demanded Walther’s
resignation for losing the seventeen bags of misstrikes.
Coupled with his grief over Reilly’s death, the disgrace of
being fired unhinged Walther. He became addled, not crazy
exactly, but stranger than eccentric. He took to wandering
from his home through Union Square to the Mint, asking
anyone who’d listen if they’d seen his lost gold. The
doormen at the St. Francis Hotel took pity on him. They
went out of their way to treat him kindly and protect him
from the pickpockets who frequented Union Square. Every day
when Walther asked, “Have you seen …?” they replied
crisply, “Not today, Mr. Walther. Come back tomorrow.”
After a few years, the newspapers picked up on this ritual
and Walther became a San Francisco character, rather like
Emperor Norton, the self-proclaimed ruler of California and
Mexico, who championed the ridiculous notion of building a
bridge to Oakland.
Walther developed tuberculosis in 1917 and passed away
during the influenza epidemic of 1919, with his wife,
Mei-Lin, at his side. Mei-Lin had used her talent for
languages to open a school near Chinatown that taught
English to Asian immigrants and Asian languages to
Americans doing business in the Far East. After Walther’s
death, she sold the school and her stately home on Pine
Street, and returned to her village in China, a dowager who
lavished her unbelievable wealth on the astonished remnants
of her family. Mei-Lin was killed in 1938 during a Japanese
bombardment. She was fifty-seven.
When Walther died, his casket was carried by a contingent
of doormen from the St. Francis. All the papers printed
sympathetic obituaries. The Call declared: “It’s a shame
the Treasury Department turned its back on Walther’s
heroism in saving the Mint and all the gold in its vaults,
and instead made him the scapegoat for the loss of a
comparatively insignificant sum. The blame for the lost
gold lay not with Herb Walther, but with the Army that
failed to transport it as promised and countenanced having
the murderous scoundrel, Ellis Bohman, in its ranks. Yes,
almost $130 thousand in gold was lost. But our politicians
steal equivalent sums—more—every day. That is why every
true San Franciscan will always remember Herbert Walther
not as the Mint Superintendent who lost the gold, and not
as the peripatetic oddball of his later years who never
ceased inquiring about it, but rather as the man who saved
our beautiful Granite Lady from the flames and gave our
fair city its most enduring mystery.”